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Call 11: We need an economy underpinned by sustainability, innovation and social justice

Let’s recognise that ‘growth’ does not equal wellbeing for young people

By Craig Dalzell

Our approach to the economy and to our environment is far too linear, writes Craig Dalzell. In agriculture, we dig up resources, turn them into chemical fertilisers for our fields, grow crops and animals, transport them to our cities, consume them and let the waste flow out to sea. For energy, we dig up fuels, burn them to create electricity and pump the waste into our soil, our water and our atmosphere. Some 9 million people die every year as a result of pollution.

In our economy, we dig up metals and oil, turn them into consumer goods, use them for a short time – sometimes a few months, sometimes just once – then throw them into landfill (if they’re not just dumped and end up as rubbish drifting out of sight and out of mind). And we’re told that we always want more. We need the next new, shiny thing. We need it yesterday and we need it before the one after that comes out.

We measure our “success” as an economy and as a country by our Gross Domestic Product – GDP. Nothing else seems to matter, except perhaps things like “employment” and “productivity” – in other words, how much you’re contributing to that GDP and how you’re helping it grow. To endlessly and relentlessly grow.

This can’t go on. Our planet simply cannot sustain this way of life. It is already telling us that we’re stressing it beyond its limits. The climate is changing, soils are degrading, resources are depleting and we’re feeling the impact on our own tired, stressed, overworked and increasingly polluted bodies.

We will pass these impacts on to the next generation. The links between exposure to pollution and the ability to learn is known and measurable. It won’t matter how well funded our schools are if the children in them are ill, stressed and malnourished.

We need to learn how to grow our food without destroying the ground underneath it. This means fewer of the most destructive products – agriculture contributes to around 13 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the third largest source of emissions after power generation and transport – and it means growing more food closer to us.

We need to consider another approach to how we live here. We need to close up those linear chains into loops. We need to build things to last, build them to be repaired and build them with sustainable materials. We need to stop powering the world with fuels that are killing us and shift to renewable sources.

We need to learn how to use less. Better, warmer homes, offices, and schools need less energy to heat. We have the technology to construct buildings that can cut energy bills by 90 per cent without increasing construction costs. If we do this using a National Investment Bank instead of relying on the “private market”, we can even build as many houses as we need and reduce the rent of tenants at the same time. This would have a massive impact on the living standards of young people and families, on energy use (thus reducing pollution), and on the shape of our economy as a whole.

The UK economy is now so dysfunctional that young people have no money left from their stagnant wages after paying their rent, utilities, commuting costs and childcare. Is it any wonder that a consumer-based economy starts to flounder when it runs out of consumers?

We can make a start on fixing a lot of this by changing how we measure “success” in our society. Instead of “GDP” and “growth”, let’s talk about “sustainability”, “wellbeing”, “environmental degradation” and “happiness”.

What does it profit us as a whole if a few of us become as rich as Midas but we’re all just as miserable as he was? Instead of chasing growth, even the new sanitised version called “inclusive growth”, we can build a truly sustainable economy, society and environment.

Transitions are hard. Change can be scary. But once we find ourselves in our happier, healthier, more equal and more fulfilling lives who among us would ever think to look back and say, “I wish it was like it used to be”?

Focus on ‘micro’ evidence – learning from the local

Dr Graeme Roy

Every young person should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, writes Graeme Roy. But that’s easier to say than it is to deliver in practice, particularly in a world where resources continue to be squeezed.

Investment in schools and support systems, innovation, and evidence-based policy development will be essential to ensuring it can happen.

But it is also about innovation and flexibility; trying new things, learning what works and putting resource into those things. In the past, young people could study at school, get a trade or go to college or university. That would be the end of their qualifications and learning.

Now, the economy is changing fundamentally and at a pace faster than anything we’ve seen before. Young people will be far less likely to come into the labour market and have one job which defines their future.

We need to think increasingly about tailoring education and skills to the needs of young people at a particular point in time, developing greater transferable skills, and being more flexible in providing opportunities for learning, whether it’s through working, volunteering or education at a later date. That might sound challenging but it’s also exciting and offers more choices to young people. It also necessitates innovation and thinking ahead to the future. For example, digital is going to be an integral part of the economy, so we need to think about developing skills in digital entrepreneurship across all sectors.

Environmental challenges also present economic opportunities, particularly for an economy like Scotland’s which has abundant natural resources. So, we should be asking how we can grow the economy in a sustainable way and use that to our advantage, whether that’s through renewable energy, water or air quality.

In many cases, young people in Scotland are already well ahead of us in understanding the type of economy that they want to see in the future.

To enable innovation and the best use of resources, it’s important that we can learn from successes and failures and develop policy accordingly. The Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework uses high level indicators of outcomes to guide its approach to policy, which makes sense. But we also need evidence which is much more ‘micro’ – learning from what has been achieved at a local level, why it worked and what the limitations were, sharing that learning across the country, and, crucially, not being afraid to walk away from something which isn’t working.

One of our weaknesses in Scotland is that where an innovation in policy does not work, or falls short of what was hoped for it, it becomes a story of political failure. Instead, falling short should be understood as part of the journey to success. You need to learn from the experience of trying new innovations in order to effect meaningful change in outcomes. Hopefully, this is an approach which will be seen in the Education Attainment Fund; it means people are innovating.

To an extent, the Scottish Government’s hands are tied in improving the labour market for young people because employment law is reserved. However, there are significant steps it can take to promote the fair work agenda. For example, the government has demonstrated leadership in highlighting the importance of apprenticeships, gender equality, anti-discrimination, the Living Wage, opposing harmful zero-hours contracts, and the Scottish Business Pledge, which asks businesses to commit to fair and sustainable practices.

There are further actions the Scottish Government could take to show leadership, for example through their control of procurement and the NHS, and by encouraging ever greater transparency of the kind enforced by the requirement for gender pay gap reporting in the public sector and larger companies.

There are also areas, for example around apprenticeships, where innovation, twinned with robust evaluation, could help achieve better outcomes for young people.

The Scottish economy young people will inherit will look quite different to today’s economy. It will be much more dynamic and innovative. Change will happen quickly, and this undoubtedly poses risks. But with the right policies and ambitions it is also presents great opportunities for Scotland’s children.

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In 2016, the UN Committees held a Day of Discussion on children's rights and the environment, and highlighted the obligation on governments to protect children from environmental harm, including through preventative and precautionary measures.

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